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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Rock and Roll Is Not Meant for Me

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

I don't like a lot of the popular rock and roll music that's out these days. Much of it I cannot understand. Some of it I find offensive. I can't understand the words to a lot of the songs. It's often played too loud. And the artists look and act like very unsavory characters.

Which is, of course, exactly how it should be. I'm not SUPPOSED to like current rock and roll. It's SUPPOSED to offend or alienate me. Like it says on the t-shirt: "If it's too loud, you're too old." Rock is -- and always has been -- the province of teenagers. If adults liked it, there was either something wrong with the adults or it wasn't real rock and roll to begin with.

I remember getting my very first stereo about thirty years ago (It came from Jordan Marsh, cost about $60, and was constructed mostly of cardboard. But it was a stereo, and it was mine. I had graduated from the family "record player" to this sophisticated piece of audio equipment). My father helped me hook it up. And to christen it, I pulled out an album by the Velvet Underground (borrowed from a friend), put the needle on the vinyl, and turned it up.

Dad frowned, "There's something wrong. It'll have to go back. Listen to that screeching"

"No, Dad," I protested. "That's the way it's SUPPOSED to sound."

I pledged in those teenage years that I would never say (or think) those comments that we always heard: "How can you listen to that junk?" "Does it HAVE to be so loud?" "Look at them! They're disgusting!" It is a pledge I struggle to keep these days (but mostly manage to).

Rock and roll music is the province of young people. It's music written by and for them. That's as true for today's generation as it was for ours -- and for our parents', too, I guess. My mother tells me that girls used to swoon and scream at Frank Sinatra. I found that hard to believe, but I accepted it. Today it seems no more incredible than knowing that some people like rap music.

Rock and roll is, as one critic has pointed out, "age-segregated" music. It's a participatory anthem of teen life. It has always separated the "us" from the "them." The "us" is the youth, hedonistic and enjoying life, dancing to the beat. The "them" is parents, school, and society in general. The groups constantly remain the same -- we just seem to slip from being one of the "us" into being one of the "them." But everything else remains the same.

The only thing sillier than trying to write about rock and roll music is trying to ignore it. It is the background music of nearly everybody's teenage years. It's about freedom and yes, it's about sex. It's about feeling and experience. It celebrates individuality, joy and adventure. It reflects youthful energy.

It is not about thought or ideology or rationality, nor even (usually) causes or protest or political action. At Woodstock, activist Abbie Hoffman jumped up on stage and started talking to the crowd about the need to stop the war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, he did this in the middle of the Who's performance. Peter Townshend clubbed him offstage with a guitar to the approving cheers of half a million rock fans. Don't mess with the music.

So I smile and bite my tongue a lot these days. One student (the day after a Paul McCartney concert) asked me with a perfectly straight face if it was true that McCartney was in another band before Wings. I assure the kid that he was and admit that McCartney's first band was pretty successful.

And I have to ask my students what the words are is as they add some current song to the closing credits of a video they just made.

But I recall that my mother (30 years ago) thought that the Beach Boys were singing about a "Little Loose Tooth (You don't know what I've got)" until we told her that it was about a CAR -- a Little Duece Coupe.

We never did show her the lyrics to "Louie, Louie," though.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.